MacKay – Chapter 11 – Tradition and Change in Asia, ca. 320 – 1400 (India, from Triumph to Invasion ca. 320 – 1400) The Coming of Islam to South Asia

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MacKay – Chapter 11 – Tradition and Change in Asia, ca. 320 – 1400 (India, from Triumph to Invasion ca. 320 – 1400)
The Coming of Islam to South Asia.

Muslim invasions from the seventh century added to the complexity of Indian civilization. Previous nomadic invaders usually had blended over time into India’s sophisticated civilization. Muslims, possessors of an equally sophisticated, but very different, culture were a new factor. The open, tolerant, and inclusive Hindu religion was based on a social system dominated by castes; whereas Islam was doctrinaire, monotheistic, evangelical, and equalitarian. In the earlier period of contact, conflict predominated, but as time passed, although tensions persisted, peaceful commercial and religious exchange occurred in society where Muslim rulers governed Hindu subjects.

Political Divisions and the First Muslim Invasions.

The Umayyad general Muhammad ibn Qasim conquered and annexed Sind, and, despite quarrels among succeeding Muslim dynasties, the occupation endured. Many Indians, treated as “people of the book” welcomed the new rulers because they offered religious tolerance and lighter taxes. Few Arabs resided in cities or garrison towns, and minimal conversion efforts did not change existing religious beliefs.

Indian Influences on Islamic Civilization.

Although Islam’s effect on India was minimal, Islamic civilization was enriched by Indian culture. Indian achievements in science, mathematics, medicine, music, and astronomy passed to the Arabs. Indian numerals were accepted, later to pass to Europe as “Arabic” numerals. Colonies of Arabs settled along India’s coasts, adopted local customs, and provided staging points for later Islamic expansion to island and mainland Southeast India.

From Booty to Empire: The Second Wave of Muslim Invasion

After the initial Muslim conquests, internal divisions weakened Muslim rule and allowed limited Hindu reconquest. In the tenth century, a Turkish dynasty gained power in Afghanistan. Its third ruler, Mahmud of Ghazni, began two centuries of incursions into northern India. In the twelfth century, the Persian Muhammad of Ghur created an extensive state in the Indus valley and north-central India. Later campaigns extended it along the plains of the Ganges to Bengal. A lieutenant to Muhammad, Qutb-ud-din Aibak, later formed a new state, with its capital at Delhi on the Ganges plain. The succeeding dynasties, the sultans of Delhi, wee military states; their authority was limited by factional strife and dependence on Hindu subordinates. They ruled much of north-central India for the next 300 years.

Patterns of Conversion

Although Muslims came as conquerors, early interaction with Indians was dominated by peaceful exchanges. The main carriers of Islam were traders and Sufi mystics, the latter drawing followers because of similarities to Indian holy men. Their mosques and schools became centers of regional political power providing protection to local populations. Low and outcast Hindus were welcomed. Buddhists were the most numerous converts. Buddhist spiritual decline had debased its practices and turned interest to the vigorous new religion of Islam. Others converted to escape taxes or through intermarriage. Muslim migrants fleeing thirteenth and fourteenth century Mongol incursions also increased the Islamic community.

Patterns of Accommodation

In most regions, Islam initially had little effect on the general Hindu community. High-caste Hindus did not accept the invaders as their equals. Although serving as administrators or soldiers, they remained socially aloof, living in separate quarters and not intermarrying. Hindus thought the Muslims, as earlier invaders, would be absorbed by Hindu society. Muslim communities did adopt many Indian ways; they accepted Hindu social hierarchies, foods, and attitudes toward women.

Islamic Challenge and Hindu Revival

Muslims, despite Indian influences, held to the tenets of Islam. The Hindu response, open to all individuals and castes, led to an increased emphasis on devotional cults of gods and goddesses. The cults, open to men, women, and all castes,, stressed the importance of strong emotional bonds to the gods. Mira Bai, a low-caste woman, and Kabir, a Muslim weaver, composed songs and poems in regional languages accessible to common people. Reaching a state of ecstatic unity brought removal of all past sins and rendered caste distinctions meaningless. Shiva, Vishnu, and the goddess Kali were the most worshiped. The movement helped, especially among low-caste groups, to stem conversion to Islam.

Stand-Off: The Muslim Presence in Indian at the End of the Sultanate Period

Similarties in style and messages between Sufis and bhaktic devotees led to attempts to bridge the gaps between Islam and Hinduism. The orthodox of each faith repudiated such thought. Brahmans denounced Muslims as temple destroyers and worked for reconversion to Hinduism. Muslim ulama stressed the incompatibility of Islam’s principles with Hindu beliefs. By the close of the sultanate period, there were two distinct religious communities. The great majority of the population remained Hindu. They were convinced of the superiority of Indian religion and civilization and of its capability to absorb the Muslim invaders. South Asia remained the least converted and integrated of all areas receiving the message of Islam.

The Spread of Islam to Southeast Asia

Southeast Asia had been a middle ground where the Chinese part of the Eurasian trading complex met the Indian Ocean zone. By the seventh and eight centuries, Southeast Asian sailors and ships were active in the trade. When Muslims, from the eighth century, gained control of Indian commerce, Islamic culture reached Southeast Asia. The thirteenth century collapse of the trading empire of Shrivijaya, ruled by devout Buddhists and located on the Strait of Malacca and northern Sumatra, made possible large scale, peaceful Muslim entry.

Trading Contacts and Conversion

Peaceful contacts and voluntary conversion were more important to the spread of Islam than were the conquest and force. Trading contacts prepared the way for conversion, with the process carried forward by Sufis. The first conversions occurred in small northern Sumatran ports. On the mainland, the key to the spread of Islam was the city of Malacca, The smaller successor to Shrivijaya. From Malacca, Islam went to Malaya, Sumatra, and the state of Demak of Java’s north coast. Islam spread into Java and moved on to the Celebes and Mindanao in the Philippines. Coastal cities were the most receptive to Islam. Their conversion linked them to a Muslim system connected to the principal Indian Ocean ports. Buddhist dynasties were present in many regions, but since Buddhist conversions were limited to the elite, the mass of the population was open to the message of the Sufis. The island of Bali and mainland Southeast Asia, were Buddhism had gained popular support, remained impervious to Islam.
Sufi Mystics and the Nature of Southeast Asian Islam.

The mystical quality of Islamin Southeast Asia was due to Sufi strivings. They oten were tolerant of the indigenous peoples’ Buddhist and Hindu beliefs. Converts retained pre-Islamic practices, especially for regulating social interactions. Islamic law ruled legal transactions. Women held a stronger familial and societal position than they had in the Middle East or India. They dominated local markets, while in some regions matrilineal descent persisted. Many pre-Muslim beliefs were incorporated into Islamic ceremonies.

In Depth: Conversion and Accommodations in the Spread of World Religion

Great civilizations and world religions have been closely associated throughout world history. World religions, belief structures that flourish in many differing cultures, have to possess a spiritual core rich enough to appeal to potential converts. They have to possess core beliefs that allow adherents to maintain a sense of common identity but also must be flexible enough to allow retention of important aspects of local culture. The capacity for accommodation allowed Islam, and later Christianity, to spread successfully into many differing communities.

Global Connections: Islam – A Bridge Between Worlds

Despite the political instability of the Abbasids, Islam’s central position in global history was solidified. The expanding Muslim world linked ancient civilizations through conquest and commercial networks. Islam was the civilizer of nomadic peoples in Asia and Africa. Its cultural contributions diffused widely from great cities and universities. There were, however, tendencies that placed Muslims at a disadvantage in relation to rival civilizations, particularly their European rivals. Political divisions caused exploitable weaknesses in many regions. Most importantly, the increasing intellectual rigidity of the ulama caused Muslims to become less receptive to outside influences at a time when the European world was transforming.
Key Terms



Bhaktic cults

Fill in the blank
1. The ___________ were Islamic mystics who were largely responsible for the conversion of Southeast Asia.
True or False
1. Most of the converts to Islam in India were formerly Buddhist or members of the Brahman caste.

  1. The conversion of Southeastern Asia to Islam was accomplished by conversion of port cities, followed by extension into the back country.

3. Sati was the Indian ritual that required the immolation of the living widows of deceased men.

  1. In response to the Islamic challenge, Hindus placed greater emphasis on bhaktic cults that stressed the importance of strong emotional bonds to the gods.

  1. The ulama were orthodox religious scholars within Islam who pressed for a more conservative and restrictive theology.

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